By Dionn McDonald
Audre Lorde (born Audrey Geraldine Lorde), was a Caribbean-American, lesbian activist, writer, poet, teacher and visionary. She was deeply involved with several social justice movements in the United States. Her work created spaces for uncomfortable conversations on issues of racism, sexism, sexuality and class.
Lorde was born in Depression-era Harlem on February 18, 1934. Her mother was from Barbados and her father from Carriacou in the Grenadines. She was the third child born to Linda Belmar Lorde and Frederick Byron Lorde. Lorde was awkward as a child, being nearly blind and chubby. The darkest child of a disciplinarian mother who could pass as white, she was the most headstrong of the three sisters. These factors along with her Caribbean mother’s musings of “home” being elsewhere began to stir feelings of not belonging.
Lorde began writing poetry at age twelve. She was inspired by poets such as Keats, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Helene Margaret. As the first Black student at Hunter High School, a public school for intellectually gifted girls, she worked on the school newspaper and published her first poem, “Spring, ” in Seventeen Magazine in 1951. During high school, Lorde became more acutely aware of racial difference. Yet, she found sisterhood among a small group of friends who also wrote poetry. Her homo-erotic feelings began to emerge during her teenage years, through various crushes on female peers and teachers.
After graduation from high school, Lorde left her parents’ home and attended Hunter College. She surrounded herself with leftist thinkers and lesbian friends. She found an opportunity for literary expression at the Harlem Writers Guild. However, she found it difficult to merge these worlds, not having gained a strong sense of her place in them. In 1953, Lorde became greatly politicized by the trial and subsequent execution of a friend’s parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Again, she was an outsider among homophobic leftists. That same year her father died from a stroke. Needing an escape from the strong anti-communist sentiment of the McCarthy era, Lorde left for Mexico. There she discovered a temporary sense of “home” and belonging inMexico. She lived as an out lesbian amongst expatriates, including other lesbian leftists. She experienced a more fluid racial identity, due to her skin complexion. For the first time, she found a sense of herself as belonging, and in 1954 she returned to New York with a new voice. Lorde graduated from Hunter College, attended Columbia University, and found work as a librarian.
With a new fervor, Lorde explored her sexuality. She simultaneously maintained lesbian and bisexual identities, being neither butch nor femme. She was an outsider among other Black women, with her Afro and different style of dress. This added to the weight of her intersecting identities that made finding her place in a single community difficult.
A self-identified lesbian, Lorde entered into an interracial marriage with Edwin Rollins in 1962. Theirs was an unconventional marriage with extra-marital pursuits. They had two children between 1963 and 1964. Lorde began to identify more with the civil rights movement, attending the March on Washingtonin 1963. Several of her poems were also published that year, including “Now That I Am Forever With Child.” In 1964 she was included in an anthology, New Negro Poets, USA, edited by Langston Hughes. In 1968 Lorde began a teaching career after she earned a position as poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College. At Tougaloo, she inspired and molded a new generation of Black militant poets. This experience also fueled her own writing and lesbian identity. While at Tougaloo she fell in love with a woman, Frances Clayton, with whom Lorde and her children built a family life. This relationship facilitated the end of her troubled marriage. Her first collection, The First Cities (1968), was published while she was at Tougaloo and received generous reviews.
As a lecturer in 1970, Lorde engaged diverse student bodies on the interlocking identities of class, race, and gender, with history and culture. During the liberation movement era of the 1970’s, Lorde’s Black identity had grown more radical. In her second book of poetry, Cable to Rage (1970), she had revealed her lesbianism. But, seeking greater inclusion into Black literary circles, she deleted an overtly lesbian-identified poem from her third collection, From a Land Where Other People Live (1973). This collection marked Lorde’s literary engagement as overtly politically radical. As she moved through feminist circles, she forged supportive friendships with other feminist writers, such as Adrienne Rich and Sonia Sanchez. Soon she became an icon on the feminist circuit, invited to speak and lecture. In 1973, she publicly came out by reading “Love Poem,” the poem she had deleted from her third book. Her fourth collection, New York Head Shop and Museum (1974), illuminated her increasing anger toward social inequality.
In search of ethnic roots, Lorde traveled to the Caribbean and West Africa many times throughout her life. She returned from Africa with a stronger persona embodying the “mother warrior” within her. She found a deep connection to African Spirituality which was reflected in Between Our Selves (1976). Two years later she wrote the essay, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” which argued that greater connection with one’s sexual truth can strengthen the fight against oppression. As Lorde’s fame grew, so did the demand for her to come and speak, in the U.S and abroad. Her international travels helped to clarify her theories on intersecting identities and difference, adding geographic location to the conditions that determine experiences of oppression. In 1977, Lorde took the position of poetry editor for Chrysalis, a feminist quarterly publication. As editor, she provided strong criticisms for her feminist peers, expecting that they speak the totality of their lives. In a 1977 speech, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Lorde revealed that she had experienced a cancer scare, during which she found her strength in other women. She also illuminated and critiqued racism and homophobia in the feminist movement, calling attention to internalized racism as well. In her quite popular poem “A Litany for Survival” she writes, “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be welcome but when we are silent we are still afraid."
In 1978, Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Just as with her established identities, the identity of “cancer survivor” injected a new perspective into her work and a sense of immediacy. She placed greater emphasis on speaking out on her theory of difference. In her pivotal essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde attacked racist white feminism: “If white american feminist theory need not deal with the differences between us, and the resulting difference in our oppressions, then how do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and women of color?” Lorde, who participated in the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979, used her theory of difference to establish the fight for gay rights as part of the greater fight against all oppressive forces that affect those who embody difference. Audre Lorde quickly became the best known out-of-the-closet Black radical lesbian feminist.
Lorde deeply politicized every aspect of herself, including her fight with cancer. The Cancer Journals (1980) framed this fight as a place for women’s empowerment and emotional healing. Pursuant to women’s empowerment, Lorde co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. This collective nurtured the voices of women of color. Engaging her own “erotic,” Lorde told her own story through the autobiographical Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982). Zami and Sister Outsider (1984), a collection of essays, dealt with issues of sexism, sexuality and racism.
During these later years, Lorde’s international prominence grew. She traveled extensively to Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. Wherever she went, she identified with and linked the lives of all oppressed people. She was met with adoration by some, while others viewed her as an outside agitator. In 1985, Lorde was honored with the dedication of the Audre Lorde Women’s Poetry Center at Hunter College.
In 1985, Lorde was diagnosed with liver cancer. By 1988, her seventeen year relationship with Frances Clayton had ended. Lorde spent the remaining six years of her life in St. Croix with Gloria Joseph, where they were embraced by a community of women. Prior to her death she is quoted as saying, “I don’t want to die looking the other way.” She succumbed to liver cancer the night of November 17, 1992. She was memorialized across the globe and her ashes were scattered in the Caribbean, Germany and the United States.
DeVeaux, Alexis. Warrior Poet. W. W. Norton. 2004